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Duwamish Tribe sues Interior in federal court, alleging sex discrimination

After decades of back-and-forth with federal authorities, the matrilineal descendants of Chief Seattle want federal recognition, once and for all.


Duwamish Tribal Council Members stand for a portrait. Without formal recognition, the tribe has been denied federal support for tribal health care, education and economic programs.
Courtesy of Duwamish Tribe

The Duwamish Tribe, which is led by descendants of Chief Seattle, has sued Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and the Department of the Interior over the agency’s ongoing refusal to grant the tribe federal recognition. The Duwamish Tribe v. Deb Haaland, filed last week in federal court, alleges that while Congress has repeatedly recognized the Duwamish Tribe and its treaty rights since ratifying the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1859, the Interior Department has unlawfully refused to grant it federal recognition status.

“We are demanding justice long overdue,” said Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, who identified herself as the great-great-great-great-great-grandniece of Chief Seattle, and the longest-serving in an unbroken line of tribal leaders.

Without formal recognition, the tribe has been denied federal support for tribal health care, education and economic programs. The federal government has a treaty-secured trust responsibility to provide this support in repayment for the lands ceded to it. (The U.S. Constitution holds that treaties ratified by Congress are the “supreme law of the land.”) These repayments are often mischaracterized by non-Natives as “benefits.” Federal recognition also protects tribal nations under congressional legislation, such as the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires institutions like museums and universities to return stolen artifacts, art and human remains to the Indigenous communities from which they were taken.

“We have to ask permission to display our own artifacts and care for our ancestors’ bones,” said Tribal Council Member Desiree Fagan, who identified herself as a fifth-generation descendant of Chief Seattle.

The tribe, which is matrilineal, says its members today primarily descend from Duwamish women. But according to Bart Freedman, a tribal attorney working on the case, when Duwamish women married non-Native white men in what were known as “pioneer marriages,” the U.S. government didn’t recognize their children as Native. That means, the suit alleges, the Interior Department has discriminated against the tribe on the basis of sex.

Tribal Council Member Desiree Fagan and Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen. “We are demanding justice long overdue,” said Hansen.
Courtesy of Duwamish Tribe

“We have to ask permission to display our own artifacts and care for our ancestors’ bones.” 

A spokesperson for the Interior declined to comment on this allegation or on the lawsuit more generally.

Not everyone agrees that the Duwamish should be federally recognized; the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, which is federally recognized, has questioned their legitimacy. But Chairwoman Hansen noted that other tribes who are seeking federal recognition, including the Chinook Indian Nation, are among the Duwamish Tribe’s friends and allies.

Regardless, the tribe argues, Congress and other federal authorities have consistently and repeatedly affirmed the Duwamish people as the same tribe that signed the Treaty of Point Elliott. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, in 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs even made a final determination that the Duwamish Tribe did indeed meet the criteria for federal recognition. But the George W. Bush administration overturned the decision. Then, in 2015, a U.S. district judge overturned that decision and ordered Interior to re-review the facts.

“It’s really hard to overturn the decision by a federal agency,” said Freedman. “(The court) found that the actions denying recognition of the Duwamish Tribe were arbitrary and capricious.”


Furthermore, once a federal authority has recognized a tribe, Interior cannot take that recognition away, said Tim Hobbes, another of the tribe’s attorneys. Only Congress has the power to act — and Congress has not done so. The tribe’s attorneys also quoted the Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt decision, citing it as proof that the prolonged breaking of treaty agreements by either federal or state governments does not invalidate a treaty itself, nor diminish the United States’ current and ongoing obligation to fulfill it.

So instead of going through Congress again, which could take another decade, the Duwamish have decided to take the matter to federal court, in hopes that the court will recognize them and force Interior to finally grant them the status they thought they’d achieved back in 2001.

“We sit here in the longhouse in the city named for Chief Seattle, on the river named for the Tribe,” said Freedman. “The Duwamish Tribe is fundamental to the city. You can’t have this lip service of identifying the city as Seattle while excluding the Duwamish Tribe from the same community.”

We welcome reader letters. Brian Oaster (they/them) is a staff writer at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.